For the Celtics, maybe there’s some hope that it was finally said. It came, no surprise, from veteran forward Marcus Morris after consecutive blown leads to Los Angeles’ NBA clubs, first an 18-point flub to the Lakers on Thursday, then a 28-point blown-lead calamity on Saturday against the Clippers.
So Morris went in front of the media and said what’s become obvious about this team — it’s got no camaraderie, no sense of shared purpose and most of all, no fun.
“I don’t see the joy in the game,” Morris said. “When I watch all these other teams around the league, and guys are up on the bench, they’re jumping on the court, they’re doing all this other stuff that looks like they’re enjoying their teammates’ success. They’re enjoying everything and they’re playing together and they’re playing to win. And when I look at us I just see a bunch of individuals.”
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It is a screwball time in the NBA, this week before the All-Star Game and after the trade deadline, so it’s possible that the two recent Boston lapses were a blip on what could still be a successful season and deep playoff run. But there’s no challenging what Morris said. This team is stocked with talent but has very little fun.
How did a Celtics team that nearly reached the NBA Finals even without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward last spring wind up in this position, fifth in the conference and still pointing fingers in the locker room?
There’s blame to go around. Let’s see how much of that blame each Celtics entity should get.
Celtics president Danny Ainge
Blame share: 40 percent
It all should start with Ainge because he should have seen these issues ahead of time. In fact, he probably did.
Going back to last spring, there was consideration in the Boston front office that the roster needed to be thinned out to ease the minutes crunch that was on the horizon. In the draft, the Celtics had eyes for Texas’ Mo Bamba, a rim-protecting, big-man project who would need time to develop. The Celtics could have dealt away some combination of Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown or draft picks to secure a spot to get him.
Instead, Ainge stood pat and entered the season with the roster logjam that’s now causing so much trouble. Ainge has done well to hoard assets for the Celtics over the last six years, but as assets become players, roles and chemistry issues need attention.
The problem we’re seeing now was in plain sight last spring, and Ainge ignored it.
The Celtics youngsters
Blame share: Zero percent
That’s what the Celtics’ young trio (Tatum was 19, Brown 21 and Rozier 23) did in the postseason last spring, and in doing so, had the team within a game — within 11 minutes, really — of the NBA Finals. They were sensational, and projections about accolades and rich contracts abounded.
But entering this year, those three guys were on contracts paying out a total of about $14 million, or 11 percent of Boston’s payroll. Rozier is going to be a restricted free agent, and Brown is eligible for an extension. They need to make a splash to bolster their first big NBA contracts, the kinds of deals that potentially take care of an entire generation of family members.
Tatum has remained the team’s second option, averaging 13.3 shots per game, but he has taken criticism for shooting too many long midrange jumpers (he’s taken fewer this year, actually) and found himself churned through the NBA’s rumor mill when it was reported he would be part of an offseason package for New Orleans star Anthony Davis.
Rozier has seen his minutes (25.9 per game to 23.1) decrease this year, as well as his shot attempts (10.0 to 8.4). With Irving mostly healthy, his usage rate has gone from 20.4 to 18.4, and he’s been inconsistent with his shot. He’s a long way from the “Scary Terry” persona he took on during last year’s playoffs, and that could affect the contract he gets this summer.
Brown has borne the brunt of the Celtics’ lack of chemistry, having sacrificed the most of anyone on the roster. He was bumped from the starting five, dropped into a seventh man role behind Hayward, lost five minutes of playing time per game and has regressed in what might have been a breakout third season playing for almost anyone but this team.
The older Celtics have poked at the young guys for not willingly making sacrifices to help the team, but all three of these guys should be making much bigger leaps this year, hitting their star-in-the-making strides and securing their places in the league. Tatum has only advanced marginally, though, and Rozier and Brown are going backwards.
And these guys have not gotten the nine-figure mega-contracts some of their teammates are collecting. They’ve sacrificed. Stop blaming them.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens
Blame share: 25 percent
As we’ve detailed recently, Stevens is a brilliant Xs and Os guy who operates well from an underdog’s perch. But the Celtics entered the season as the favorites in the East and, as they’ve failed to live up to that billing, have shown themselves needing non-basketball coaching.
Stevens has never been much of a locker-room presence, instead leaving internal conflicts to players. It’s costing him now.
No one expects Stevens to storm into the locker room and hurl furniture, nor should he have a leather-couch couples therapy session with each aggrieved player. That’s not his personality and his players know it.
But he needs to find some hook to galvanize this team — maybe it’s Morris’ Saturday soliloquy — before its chance at contending starts slipping away.
Celtics guard Kyrie Irving
Blame share: 25 percent
Two summers ago, Irving agitated for his exit from Cleveland because he wanted a team on which he was the leader and could escape the shadow of LeBron James. He got that in Boston, but his leadership style, like much about Irving, can best be described as “quirky.”
As the Celtics were hitting one of their many speed bumps a month ago, Irving openly criticized the team’s young players for not being willing to sacrifice enough, despite the fact that Irving himself has only shaved his field-goal attempts from 18.1 per game last year to 17.9, and his usage rate as dipped from 31.0 to 29.5. When it comes to sacrificing, Irving has not done much by way of leadership by example.
Then came the revelation from Irving that he had spoken to James about leadership and apologized to him for the approach to the game he took when he was young. That came in the wake of an impressive team victory over the Raptors, ensuring that Irving would receive the bulk of the limelight.
As one Celtics source put it, “No one knew what the f— that was. He took a good moment in the season and made it all about Kyrie.”
There’s a gap between the older Celtics veterans and the young players on the roster. If Irving is the leader here, it’s his job to bridge that gap. And he has not done it.
Celtics forward Gordon Hayward
Blame share: 10 percent
It’s not that Hayward has done anything wrong — it’s just that he has been a difficult piece to squeeze into this rotation. He is getting healthier and more confident, but his recovery from the nasty ankle injury that started the 2017-18 season has affected him throughout the year, making him tentative and inconsistent.
Hayward is getting $31 million this year to be a sixth man who averages 10.8 points and shoots 31.7 percent from the 3-point line. Again, it’s not his fault that the Celtics paid him that deal or that he got hurt, but there must be resentment in the Boston locker room, a sense that Hayward, who played for Stevens at Butler, is being treated with kid gloves while Irving and Morris are chirping about chemistry.
Hayward gets only a sliver of blame here. He might have gotten more, except so much has gone awry in Boston, and there’s so much other blame to be passed around.